The joy of stacking chairs

In October 2018, according to various news sources, Sergey Savitsky, a Russian engineer stabbed his workmate, welder Oleg Beloguzov. They worked together at a research station in Antarctica, with little company other than each other. Reports at the time claimed that the engineer was driven to this by Beloguzov’s habit of blurting out the endings of books that Savitsky was reading.

(Oleg, transported to a hospital in Chile, recovered from his injuries, and Sergey was returned to St. Petersburg. Sadly, the rather charming tale has proven to be somewhat apocryphal. Apparently, the two men had been at odds with one another for some time.)

There’s no doubt that the isolation of life in Antarctica is intense. Cate Blanchett’s character in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” — a pretty committed agoraphobe — was all for it:

“I’m not good when exposed to people . . . . For the past 20 years, I’ve been in training for overwintering at the South Pole.”

In a recent New Yorker article, Ian Frazier draws a line from the isolated reality of working in Antarctica to the way many of us have had to live over the past two+ years:

“Savitsky and Beloguzov were early victims of a soon-to-be-global complaint waiting up ahead, in 2020. Entwined today with COVID is the age-old mental malady called cabin fever.”

Alone and lonely

Many people have adapted well to working from home and, generally, living in more insular settings. As I have written here many times since March 2020, I am not one of those people.

Medical News Today defines cabin fever as “psychological symptoms that a person may experience when they are confined to their home for extended periods. Such symptoms may include restlessness, irritability and loneliness.” Also common symptoms are listlessness, anxiety, decreased motivation and impatience.

Tick, tick, and keep on ticking. Over the past two years, I have experienced every one of these symptoms. Some come and go, some have been with me most of the time. I have not always been a pleasant or reasonable person to live with.

That said, there have been some benefits to a life lived largely at home; one of them a slower pace to my days. Those fast turnarounds were never pleasant, as I was reminded earlier this week. I got home from a work trip of several days, with just enough time to unload the car, repack my work bag and make my lunch for the next day. A quick night’s sleep, and I was back on the road at 6 am. I certainly haven’t missed the constant eating on the run that was part of my pre-pandemic routine. I’ve had time for the odd spurt of creativity. I could speak at and attend conferences that would have been prohibitively expensive if I had been expected to travel to them. My almost constant presence has made my cat very happy.

But, on balance, I have felt the restrictions of my pandemic-controlled life more than the benefits.


I’ve been doing more in-person work recently, and I have more ahead.

Last week, as my colleagues and I set up the room for a community meeting, I realized how much I had missed doing this. We got caught up on personal news, chatted about current events and thought through the flow of the meeting. By the time the participants rolled into the room, we were ready to go. As we stacked up the chairs and put away the tables after the meeting, we did a thorough debrief about matters both large and small.

I found myself thinking about how those tasks, which once seemed so inconvenient, had been a pleasure to do. More importantly, they created valuable opportunities to make the formal work more productive.

At the meeting the next day, I noticed people talking in twos and threes as they grabbed a cup of coffee and a snack before we officially started. After the meeting, they hung around, continuing their personal conversations and getting or giving support.

Zoom – critically helpful as it has been during the pandemic – just doesn’t allow for any of this. Even if the organizers get online a few minutes early, it’s all business: after all, we need to be professional just in case someone shows up early. Participants arrive at the last instant, often zooming from one meeting to the next without even a quick break to grab a glass of water. At the end, everyone hits their “leave this meeting” button as fast as they can so they can rush off to their next meeting. A couple of times I’ve been ready to settle in for a post-meeting debrief, only to find myself sitting there alone, staring at my own face. And there are no snacks, unless we have time to bring them ourselves.

I have worked in the Luke’s Place office from time to time over the past couple of years, but usually the building has been mostly empty. Earlier this week, the parking lot was close to full when I pulled in. Inside, the place was almost literally humming. I had to move other people’s food around to make room for my lunch in the fridge. As I worked, I could hear colleagues talking and laughing in the hall and in their offices.

I’m sure the day will come when I, once again, will find excuses not to stack the chairs. I know I will become annoyed at some point when I have to wait to heat up my lunch because the microwave is being used by someone else.  I will no doubt be irritated by the sound of other people’s conversations when I am trying to work.

For now, though, I say bring on these inconveniences of working with people in person. We’ve been alone for far too long.

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